Ben McCollum, for the most part, doesn’t care about statistics, records, accolades or point totals.
Northwest men’s basketball’s 10th-year coach is not concerned with the fact that his team is shooting 52.2% from the field over its last seven games. He is not reading into how much the No. 1 Bearcats won by last weekend, when they scored a 21-point victory over then-No. 14 Missouri Southern Feb. 13 and a 35-point win over Pittsburg State Feb. 15. He cares about wins and losses, he said. He is, as he’s repeated throughout this season and throughout his tenure, focused on the process — the daily and weekly progression and growth of the team he leads.
Ahead of Northwest’s second matchup in seven days with No. 17 Missouri Southern (19-5, 12-3 MIAA), there is one fact that defines and looms over the upcoming game. As the Bearcats (24-1, 14-1 MIAA) get set to face off with the Lions Feb. 20, McCollum isn’t focused on the fact that a win would clinch a seventh consecutive Regular Season MIAA Championship, even though everyone else’s focus is.
“I think when you start to get too into big games or whatever it may be, I think then you become what is known as a front-runner,” McCollum said. “And we like to just continue to get better and stay process-focused.”
Northwest, of course, is the front-runner for this season’s MIAA title. The Bearcats are one victory away from cutting down nets at Bearcat Arena, something they’ve grown accustomed to. They’re one victory away from another trophy, for which McCollum’s office on the second floor Lamkin Activity Center is running out of room.
But McCollum’s version of the term “front-runner” is different, he said. He’s aware that his team is the favorite to win the title, just as it was at the start of the season in the MIAA Coaches Poll.
Front-runners aren’t process-focused, McCollum said. They put too much stock into big games. They come with the ups-and-downs that Northwest tries to avoid, he said. His own definition of a frontrunner is the antithesis of what his team aims to be.
“What I consider a frontrunner is; you only run when you’re in front,” McCollum said. “And so, when things don’t go your way, you get upset. You don’t compete. You don’t fight. … We try to approach each game like it’s the biggest game of the year, and so this will be no different than any other game that we’ve played.”
This is the first game all season, though, that will immediately precede a trophy-presentation and a crop of championship T-shirts if Northwest wins. In that sense, it is different. While Northwest fights to extend a record streak of conference title victories, the Lions will be fighting to extend their own opportunity to dethrone the Bearcats.
With three conference losses on their ledger, the Lions remain the closest team to Northwest in the MIAA standings and the team with the most viable outside chance of winning the conference. The Feb. 20 matchup, of course, could extend Southern’s hope or seal Northwest’s fate. And it comes in the midst of Northwest’s toughest slate of games this season.
After traveling through Joplin, Missouri, and Pittsburg, Kansas, a week ago and picking up two conference victories, Northwest will play host to Southern and Pitt State over the weekend before squaring off with Missouri Western in St. Joseph, Missouri, Feb. 25 and hosting Washburn Feb. 27 in the regular-season finale.
The nature of the late-season scheduling leaves Northwest will little time to adjust in aftermath of its trip through southern Missouri and Kansas, McCollum said. And the week ahead, one that includes a stretch of four games in eight days, adds another degree of difficulty.
“It won’t take the legs out,” McCollum said. “It’s a tough stretch. It’s six games against some of the best teams in the league with the last two games included in it, so it just is what it is. If you want to perform, you’ve got to play the best. We’ve never shied away from it.”
With four games between Northwest and the start of the MIAA Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, the Bearcats have hit a stride in the closing leg of the conference season. Over its last seven games, matching up against the likes of Southern, Lincoln and Central Missouri — the only team to beat Northwest in the last 23 months — Northwest has caught fire.
In its last seven matchups, dating back to an 83-57 win over Fort Hays State Jan. 25, Northwest has shot more than 58% from the field, 52% from beyond the arc and has beat opponents by an average of 28.1 points per game.
The Bearcats have been led over the stretch by sophomore guard Trevor Hudgins, who’s shooting 59.2% from the field, 57.6% from 3-point line and averaging 25.1 points per game since Jan. 25. The sophomore has won the MIAA Player of the Week award twice in as many weeks.
In his 10 years of coaching at Northwest, McCollum said he hasn’t seen anything quite like the stretch the Bearcats are on. He’s not sure anyone has.
“I don’t know that it’s probably been seen a lot (in the) NCAA,” McCollum said. “I’ve had teams play just as well in spurts or better in spurts even, but statistically, offensively, it’s fairly unheard of.”
McCollum admitted that he didn’t see this coming, both in regards to his team’s performance of late and its offensive prowess all season. Seeing it coming, he said, would have required him to look ahead, something he avoids.
For McCollum, the surprising aspect of Northwest’s latest tear through the MIAA comes with the nuances of its offense. While it isn’t easily recognizable, the team’s offensive scheme is different than what it was a year ago, the result of adjustments that took much of the season, adjustments that seem to have paid off.
While McCollum dissected the nuances of his offense and lamented his tough schedule and hyped his team’s recent performance, he didn’t offer thoughts on the historic run his team has been on for three seasons. Northwest has lost six of its last 130 games. The coach won’t reflect on a season that hasn’t ended yet.
“At the end, it’s always good to reflect and look back, but I just think that that’s when you get caught, man,” McCollum said. “When you start to relish in the ego of feeling good about yourself, then you get caught and you don’t continue to improve.”
For the second season in a row, McCollum’s team sits on the verge of history. The Bearcats were the first team in the MIAA’s history to win six-consecutive regular-season conference titles. McCollum didn’t have much to say about what seven in a row might feel like. The Bearcats haven’t won seven yet, he said.
McCollum’s not trying to get caught up in reflection too early. He’s focused on progress and the process and wins and losses. He’s focused on another matchup with Missouri Southern.
“Six in a row is awesome. Six in a row is unbelievable,” McCollum said. “It’s never been done in the MIAA. But, yeah, no, we haven’t won seven.”